Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review of 'Langue[dot]doc 1305'

This is an enjoyable time-travel science fiction novel, mainly set in the 1300s in Languedoc. It's about a scientific mission, but there's more academic politicking than science - which suits me fine, because in so far as there is any real time-travel science I don't have a hope of understanding it. I can relate to office politics, and to medieval studies - and it does both of these rather well. Lots of humour and nice descriptions of both the scientists and the villagers, and quite a lot of thought about how travellers from the future would appear to medieval villagers. A very Australian book, especially in the language - I wonder whether the author did this deliberately or unthinkingly. Anyway, that made it more enjoyable for me.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review of 'Measuring the World'

An enjoyable historical novel, mainly about the characters of the two men - Humboldt and Gauss - who each seem to have been insufferable in their own way. Lots of detail and some insight into what it must feel like to be cleverer than everyone you ever meet; sensitive depiction of the plight of poor old Bonpland, Humboldt's companion on his voyages, who went through all the misery but gets none of the credit. It's suggested that Humboldt was gay, though very much in passing.

Review of 'Black Mist: And Other Japanese Futures'

I bought this because I'd read one of the stories from the collection, Niagara Falling, in another collection, and I liked it so much that I thought...well, you know. But as it turns out, that was the best story in this collection. I also liked the Pad Cadigan story, Tea from an Empty Cup, but I'd read that before too. Some of the others are OK - I liked the last one, thirteen Views of Higher Edo, but they mostly feel very dated for future-facing science fiction...after 20 years of stagnation the idea that Japan will dominate the economic and technological future seems just implausible.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review of 'A Woman in Winter'

Watched on an old-fashioned DVD borrowed from the library. I was tempted to give this up after about fifteen minutes, because it seemed so pretentious (and confusing). But I'm glad I stayed with it. It's moody and atmospheric, and creepy without any stupid horror themes. There is a suspicion - unsubstantiated - that the main character is losing his mind, but this is not done in a heavy-handed or crass way. There are lots of time-travel themes, but again they aren't over-explained. The dialogue is not particularly good, but I liked the filming and the locations. I'm not any sort of scientist, but I thought the depictions of scientists and their squabbles was pretty good too.

Time well spent, and I'd recommend this one.

Small note about presentation: the cover shows the crests of the prizes for which it was nominated; it didn't actually win any prizes. That feels a bit of a cheat.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Review of 'The Lady in the Van'

Perfectly crafted British 'character' film, based on Alan Bennett's play. Watched on a big screen at the Vue cinema in Stroud, though it wouldn't have suffered much from being seen on TV.

The acting is great, the script very well written...sometimes the filming is a bit slow, but really it's a gem. Very poignant, brings up a lot of stuff about ageing, treatment of the mentally ill, the meagre 'comforts' offered by organised religion...just great.

It would be interesting to know whether non-British people could possibly enjoy this.

Small personal note - after my Dad closed his shop and went into semi-retirement he started doing locum work at an optical practice in Parkway, Camden Town. Alan Bennett was one of the customers, and Dad adjusted his glasses and I think made him a new pair. Dad was full of praise for what a nice man AB was.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review of 'Tears for Sale'

I watched this, via download, last weekend. I'd been meaning to for a while, and was not disappointed. Balkan magical realism (some supernatural stuff, including ghosts and witches), fantastic and fantastical cinematography, beautiful strong women characters, tremendous music, and a story line set in post WW1-Serbia. Some lovely contraptions that suggest a steampunk aesthetic, great costumes and moustaches. Great bar and drinking scenes.

In some ways it's the film I've been expecting from Terry Gilliam for years, and which he has consistently failed to deliver.

In a spirit of full disclosure, I have to confess that a week later I don't remember it very well. It's a visual and visceral experience rather than an intellectual one. Still, I suppose that means I can watch it again!

Review of '4 Minutes'

A German film about a young lesbian woman in prison for a violent crime (which we learn later she didn't really commit) who was sexually abused by her father, who also wanted her to be a concert pianist. An old woman on the staff of the prison wants to coach her to take part in a piano competition; the prisoner reluctantly agrees, but has to practice in handcuffs because of an act of violence against one of the guards.

Relentlessly depressing, with a Nazi prison camp back-story for the old woman (also a lesbian, who sees her Jewish lover executed). I wonder what we'll do for gravitas when it's no longer plausible for contemporary film characters to have had direct experience of Nazi camps?

Not a bad film though, with good acting, enough tension and drama (because it's not Hollywood we don't know whether it will have a happy ending) and lots of dark cinematography.

Review of 'Spring, Summer. Autumn, Winter...and Spring Again'.

An odd Korean film, which felt like it was heavy with symbolism and allegory that passed me by. A monk lives in a temple which is on a beautiful island in a beautiful lake. The temple is a traditional wooden building, and for some reason it reminded me of the dacha at the end of the 'Solaris', which is also on an island, but in the boiling sea of the sentient planet.

The monk is bringing up a small boy who lives with him, also wearing monk's garb. The boy roams freely but then performs various cruelties on local wildlife - he ties a stone to a fish, a frog and a bird. The monk shows him how it feels by tying a very heavy stone to the boy, who then remorsefully sets out to free the animals but finds some of them have died. In the next season a woman brings a sick girl to recuperate on the island; the boy, now grown in to a young man, has sex with the girl in various nooks on the island. He and the girl sleep in a boat on the lake, and the monk removes the bung from the boat so that it fills with water.

The young man leaves but returns as a not-so-young man on the run from the police for killing his wife; the monk takes him and hides him from the police who come looking for him. The now old monk dies, the younger man takes his place, and in the final scene a young woman brings a baby for him to look after. There is a lot of footage of scenery with a Buddhist hymn (with lyrics that don't hold up well in translation) sung by a female choir in the background.

The film is very slow, beautiful to look at but not very engaging as cinema. Not sure that this was time well spent.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Review of 'Expo 58'

I've really loved some of Jonathan Coe's books (The Rotters' Club, House of Sleep) and not liked some others (Dwarves of Death). This one sits somewhere in the middle, to my surprise. It takes a long time to get started, and I found the mundane details of the main character's life dull - well, they are supposed to be, but couldn't we have established that rather more quickly? It's more interesting when he gets to Belgium, and by the end I was emotionally engaged with him, his wife, his situation. 

By the end I was sorry it was over - the impact of finishing with a present-day epilogue in which many of the main characters are dead is poignant. On the other hand, I didn't like the MI5 characters' double act - it reminded me too much of Ealing comedies, and felt like it was played for laughs according to a formula.

I note that 1958 was the year of my own birth, so the main characters are contemporaries of my parents. I don't know whether Coe is over-doing it, but London in 1958 seems really depressing, as if the war and rationing have only just finished.

Review: Carnal Machines

A very mixed collection - well, that's how it is with anthologies, isn't it? At least one reviewer has speculated that all the stories are written by one (male) author. I don't think so - they're different enough, and variable enough in quality.

Some of them really worked for me, and others made me want to skip quickly on to the next. Quite a few stories in which men are raped by machines. I liked best those that took the steampunk technology for granted rather than made it the focus of the technology, and those that managed to do a workable pastiche of Victorian style.

A number of the stories feature female oriental villains which rather reminded me of Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu, even though the characters are mainly women. Is that OK in a retro context?

General thought is that I still haven't found much steampunk fiction where the writing lives up to the visual aesthetic - the cover is rather better than the stories!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review: The Hundred Foot Journey

Limp, lame, implausible, though at least pleasant to look at. A family of Indians open a restaurant in a small French village which already has a Michelin-starred restaurant, owned and run by Helen Mirren. After a hesitation of perhaps 20 seconds by the locals the restaurant is soon filled with happy French customers who have all embraced Indian food; it takes another minute for Mirren's sour hater to reveal that she has a heart of gold and wants no underhand tricks against the Indians (her chef had just tried to burn them out, in the worst misunderstanding of managerial directions since Thomas A'Beckett).

The Indian's golden-boy son becomes a fabulous celebrated French cook but nevertheless leaves celebrity in Paris to work in Mirren's provincial restaurant. There's almost no racism, no commercial competition, no family rows that last longer than a nano-second, and absolutely no tension.  It did make me quite hungry watching it, though.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review of “Alice's Adventures in Steamland: The Clockwork Goddess”

A disappointment - some nice ideas, good descriptions of the steampunk technology, and some good jokes, but ultimately not very well written, with too much unjustified graphic violence and poorly described sex. I like sex, violence and violent sex as much as the next person, but this didn't work for me. Actually the Alice in Wonderland motifs made it worse - it felt like they'd been crowbarred in to keep a running joke going, and it would have been better without them. Somewhere in here there's a better book trying and failing to get out.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review of 'The Radetzky March' by Joseph Roth

It took me a while to get into this book, but I ended up loving it and feeling sorry that it had ended. It's a detailed, evocative portrayal of the end of the Hapsburg empire, and captures well the feeling of inevitability and sentimentality that characterised that ending, at least for some members of the Austrian elite. It's all there - the clash of nationalisms, the ossification of the monarchy in the person of Franz Joseph, the rise of the workers' movement, the stultifying formality and prison of manners. It focuses on the relationship between three generations of men - their mothers and spouses are barely present - and how they are each diminished by their relations with each other. Both father and son are in the shadow of the grandfather, who had accidentally been a hero at the battle of Solferino; the father loves his son but correctness and a sense of what is honourable and dignified prevents either of them having a proper relationship with each other. The grandson has a military career which brings him no sense of self-worth but finds it impossible to leave the army.

At first I found the detail crushing and a bit dull, but it become a way of making the characters real, so that the final unfolding with the outbreak of war feels like a personal tragedy that involves people you know; otherwise, as the author himself hints, the death of one young man among so many can have no significance.

Really enjoyed this, and will read more by Roth

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Review of 'Spectre'

I went expecting to really hate this, and ended up quite liking it. The new James Bond is a lot more Guardian-reader friendly than the Ian Fleming version. If there was any doubt, the fact that the first image after the credits is of the front page of The Guardian should dispel these; I'm sure Fleming thought of all Guardian readers as either traitors or fellow-travelling useful idiots.

There's less camp humour, but also less sexism. Daniel Craig's Bond seems to form genuine emotional relationships with women rather than treat them as recreational toys. The pace is more controlled - it's not all crashes and bangs and stunts. As every, the sets, the locations and the clothes are nice to look at.

The plot doesn't make a great deal of sense (why is the secret surveillance centre located on top of a remote desert petrochemical plant?), but it's grounded in a different moral universe to the old style of Bond. Here the boundary between the security services and the baddies - Spectre - is thin and faint. In a nod to 9-11 conspiracy theories it's clear that the terrorist attacks which are being used to justify constant global surveillance are being orchestrated by the security services themselves. The nasty posh-boy new head of the merged MI5/MI6 looks a lot like George Osborne and is described as having 'gone to school with the Home Secretary'. Surveillance is something that the baddies do, as compared to traditional old-style secret agents. Spectre looks like a corporate entity and talks the language of business; it's also ethnically diverse, as is the security service.

Still loads of product placement, but I could imagine watching another one of these.